Merida affords considerable wrecks
of its ancient magnificence under the Romans,
and the splendid works of those people: the
pavement of the streets, of the houses, and of
the churches, are so many traces of their works;
the walls are covered with those precious remains, and the cellars are filled with them. We
find some also out of the town, in the gardens, in
the fields, on the roads, and, in short, every where.
Inscriptions are numerous, and the ruins of
columns, of vases, of capitals, frizes, statues, and
bass-reliefs, are observable in every quarter.
Alexandre de Laborde - A View of Spain - translated into English for Longman, Hurst, etc. 1809
On the Madrid road, is the convent of Santa Eulalia. El Hornito, the "little oven", in which the good little martyr girl was baked, was converted into a chapel in 1612. The portico is low and disproportioned: observe the peculiar truncated pillars: an ancient inscription runs thus, "Marti Sacrum Vettilla Paculi" (dedicated to Mars by Vettilla, Paculus' wife) while a modern one records the easy transfer from the Pagan to the Papal system, "Jam non Marti sed Jesu Christo (..) consecratum".
Richard Ford - A Handbook for Travellers in Spain - 1855
Basilica de Santa Eulalia: details of the ancient lintels, another detail can be seen in the image used as background for this page
The temple to Mars is dated IInd century AD. The reliefs of the medallions, i.e. the winged Victory writing on a shield and the military trophies bring to mind those of Colonna Traiana which was erected in 113 AD.
In the market-place is a large column, built entirely of inscriptions and
sepulchral stones, crowned on the top with an antique statue.
Rev. Edward Clarke - Letters Concerning the Spanish Nation - 1763
The pillar in the Campo de San Juan was raised in 1646: all these works are made in bad taste out of the "disjecta membra" (scattered pieces) of ancient temples and fragments, brought from the temple of Mars on the Plaza now dedicated to Santiago (St. John the Apostle), and of other Roman capitals and altars piled one above another. (..) Thus are the crumbs of Paganism served up again, thus Mars and Diana are now displaced, or metamorphosed into Santiago and Eulalia, in principle the same, "mutato nomine tantum" (the name being changed only). Ford.
The writer had perhaps read The Two Babylons, a religious pamphlet published in 1853 by Presbyterian theologian Alexander Hislop which alleged that the Roman Catholic Church is a veiled continuation of the pagan religion of ancient Babylon.
Casa del Mitreo: the three courtyards: (left) atrium with impluvium; (right-above) peristyle with a pool; (right-below) courtyard with a garden (see a page on the houses of Pompeii and their layout)
A very interesting Roman house was discovered at the south-western corner of the town. It is dated Ist century AD, but some of its mosaics and paintings are later works. It is named after Mithra, a god of eastern origin, because some statues related to his worship were found in the proximity of the building, but the site of the mithraeum, the prayer hall which contained them has not been identified yet. The statues were found in the period 1902-1913, but the house was not properly excavated until the 1970s.
Museo Nacional de Arte Romano of Merida: statues found near Casa del Mitreo: (left) Cautopates, an assistant to Mithra; (centre) Mercury; (right) Leontocephalus or Chthonic Mithra (chthonic meaning underground because the "mithraea" had the aspect of an underground cave)
The inscription on the statue of Cautopates says: Invicto sacrum C(aius) Avitus Acci(o) Hedychro Patre and in Greek Made by Demetrios, and that on the statue of Mercury shows the same name and the year corresponding to 155 AD. The wealthy donor had the title of pater, the seventh and highest grade of the Mithraic initiation ladder. Each grade was associated to a celestial body (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, the Moon, the Sun and Saturn) and that could explain why a statue of Mercury was dedicated to Mithra. Statues depicting a man with the head of a lion and in the coils of a snake have been found at some mithraea, but their association with the cult of the god is not clear yet. Lion was one of the initiation grades and the coils of the snake are interpreted as a symbol of the movement of the celestial bodies or of the passing of time. These three finely executed statues were most likely made in a workshop in Asia Minor.
Casa del Mitreo: (left) reception hall with the Cosmogony mosaic; (right) mosaic with a maze near the peristyle
The quality of the floor mosaics of Casa del Mitreo is very high, although they were made at different moments in time. Geometric mosaics with a maze-like design were pretty popular in Spain (see one at Italica) as well as in other parts of the Roman Empire (e.g. at Sabratha in Libya). Mosaics depicting a large and complex scene required a talented pictor musivarius; that of the Cosmogony was perhaps made by craftsmen from Algeria or Tunisia where the art of mosaic making reached levels of excellence (see mosaics at Cherchell in Algeria and at the Museum of Bardo in Tunis).
Cosmogony mosaic: (above): (left) Sun-Oriens (sunrise); (centre) Moon-Occasus (sunset); (right) Navigia, a figurehead symbolizing navigation which brings to mind a mosaic at Villa del Casale in Sicily; (below) Oceanus, Copiae (the abundance of the sea) and other subjects
The subject of the mosaic was the representation of the three tiers which made up the Universe: Heaven, Earth and Sea. The purpose was achieved by portraying gods and personifications of human activities who were related to these three elements. They seem to float in the sky and they are arranged vertically; those of the Earth at the centre of the mosaic are lost.
Museo Nacional de Arte Romano: frescoes from a triclinium of Casa del Mitreo: (left) Bacchus/Dionysus with Ampelos, a young satyr (see them in a statue at Sagalassos); (centre) Victory crowning Bacchus: (right) Bacchus and below his chariot drawn by panthers (see it better in a mosaic at Carmona)
Bacchus/Dionysus competes with Apollo, Venus and Hercules for being the god who was most portrayed in ancient statues, paintings and mosaics. The fresco at the centre relates to a less known episode of the god's life, i.e. his conquest of India, a deed which clearly derived from the military campaigns of Alexander the Great. Apparently the god managed to conquer that land by asking the bacchants who followed him to make a loud clangour which terrified the poor Indians (see the sarcophagus of Bacchus in India at Lyon).
Casa del Mitreo: private baths with a small apsidal pool
The estate had a number of ancillary facilities, some of which had a commercial use. They included a detached small bath establishment which was decorated with marbles and mosaics.
Casa del Mitreo: (above) other frescoes; (below-left) geometric mosaic; (below-right) Cupid holding a bird
Cupid, loose, stubborn boy!
You asked me for quarter for a few hours.
How many days and nights you have stayed!
And now have become imperious and master of the house.
Johann Wolfgang Goethe - Hymn to Cupid - 1788 - Translation by Robert Tobin
Museo Nacional de Arte Romano - detached section: (left) Mausoleums of the Voconii and of the Julii; (right) individual tombstones similar to those which were reutilized in the Alcazaba, the Moorish fortress and to those of a necropolis at Barcelona
A small necropolis was identified near Casa del Mitreo during excavations in 1926 and 1943. It included two family mausoleums in good condition and a number of individual tombstones. The mausoleums stood opposite one another, similar to what occurs in larger Roman necropolises, e.g. at Porto. That of the Voconii is dated late Ist century BC and it was utilized until the IVth century AD. The other mausoleum cannot be precisely dated, but most likely it is of the same period. Gens Julia was the Roman "clan" of whom Julius Caesar was a member. Gens Voconia is mainly known because of Quintus Voconius Saxa, tribune of the people in 169 BC, whose name is associated with Lex Voconia, a law which set limits to the properties which could be inherited by a woman.
The inscription bears the name of C. Voconius Proculus who dedicated the tomb to his parents and his sister. It does not tell us anything about the social status of the Voconii, but its decoration with torcs, armillae and phalerae, suggests they had a military background.
Torcs were bracelets or rigid necklaces worn by the Gauls and other peoples whom the Romans and the Greeks regarded as "barbarians" (see The Dying Galatian, the statue of a warrior wearing a torc). It eventually became an award for a distinguished Roman soldier. Armillae were armbands, sometimes having the shape of a snake, which were military decorations too. Phalerae were bravery medals which in this relief are pretty small and are placed on a leather harness resembling a grill.
The first Voconii and Julii who settled in Merida were most likely high level commanders in the campaigns for the conquest of the northern mountainous regions of Spain in 29-19 BC.
In the 1990s the demolition of a number of dilapidated buildings near the ancient bridge on the River Guadiana led to the discovery of a stretch of a Roman street and of some adjoining houses. The neighbourhood was known as Moreria because it had been inhabited by Moors during the Arab rule of Merida (713-1230). Its demolition was aimed at making room for large public offices which were erected above the archaeological findings.
Moreria: Casa de los Marmoles, a Roman house with marble floors: (above) part of the main hall; (below) adjoining small reception hall with an octagonal fountain
Archaeologists found evidence that the Roman houses partly collapsed during the Vth century AD, at a time when waves of Barbarian tribes entered the Iberian peninsula and competed for its control. Suebi and Vandals clashed at Merida in 429, the fight ending with the victory of the latter. The Vandals moved to northern Africa under the pressure of the Visigoths who eventually founded a stable kingdom in the Iberian peninsula. The excavations at Moreria have identified the various layers of houses which were built through the centuries.
Beginning from the XVIth century some of the noblemen of Merida began to collect antiquities, mainly inscriptions, in their palaces. In 1838 a small archaeological museum was created in a confiscated nunnery. Its size was not large enough to house of all the artefacts which were found in the following years. In 1979 architect Rafael Monero Valles was charged with the design of a new museum which was inaugurated in 1986 during a ceremony which was attended also by the President of the Italian Republic. The architect designed a building which highlights the monumental aspect of Roman art.
Museo Nacional de Arte Romano: (left) floor mosaic portraying a poet with Muses, the Four Seasons and other subjects (IInd century AD); (right-above) inscription: C(olonia) A(ugusta) E(merita) F(ecerunt) Seleucus et Anthus; (right-below) details of Nilotic scenes
Mosaic makers rarely signed their works. It is likely they did so in this mosaic first because it was placed in the reception hall of a very important house of Merida and thus it was seen by the elite of the town, and secondly because it was a sort of catalogue of the types of mosaics Seleucus and Anthus were able to make by using very minute tesserae (cubes/dice). It has a very elaborate geometric structure, it accurately depicts subjects in isolation or in groups and in the border it houses some amusing Nilotic scenes. In Rome black and white mosaics were very popular (see those at Villa di Livia and Villa Adriana), in the provinces less so, but the wealthiest citizens of Merida had strong links with Rome at least in the first centuries after the foundation of the town.
With his songs, Orpheus, the bard of Thrace, allured the trees, the savage animals, and even the insensate rocks.
Ovid - Metamorphoses - Book XI - translated by More, Brookes.
Those who made this mosaic might have seen that by Seleucus and Anthus. Some details, e.g. the four winged creatures, are almost identical, although two centuries elapsed between the two mosaics. The myth of Orpheus was a popular subject for mosaics because it allowed the depiction of a variety of animals, often in a more complex form than that in this mosaic, e.g. at Philippopolis.
Museo Nacional de Arte Romano: detail of the Mosaic of the Seven Sages showing (left to right) Agamemnon, Achilles (or Patroclus on behalf of Achilles), Ulysses (who is identified by his "pileus", a conical felt cap) and Briseis (IVth century AD)
The detail depicts Achilles unwillingly surrendering Briseis to Agamemnon, an episode described in the first book of the Iliad, after which the anger against the Achaeans led Achilles to hold back from the fight (The wrath sing, goddess, of Peleus' son, Achilles, that destructive wrath which brought countless woes upon the Achaeans. - learn more about it and see a beautiful fresco from Pompeii). This mosaic was made at the time of the transition between the old pagan beliefs and the Christian faith. We can assume that the landlord who commissioned it was still imbibed with the culture of the dying world (see also a Vth century mosaic at Paphos on Cyprus).
Museo Nacional de Arte Romano: mosaics from Villa de El Hinojal at Las Tiendas, north of Merida (IVth century AD): (left) geometric with four kantharos; (right) Hunting of the Boar (in the frame the Four Seasons and four kantharos)
Boar hunting was traditionally associated with the myth of Meleager:
A fierce wild boar, white of tusk, that wrought much evil, wasting the orchard land of Oeneus; many a tall tree did he uproot and cast upon the ground, aye, root and apple blossom therewith. But the boar did Meleager, son of Oeneus, slay, when he had gathered out of many cities huntsmen and hounds; for not of few men could the boar have been slain, so huge was he; and many a man set he upon the grievous pyre.
Homer - Iliad - Book IX - Translation by Samuel Butler.
Meleager and his companions were portrayed in many fine sarcophagi in Italy and Greece, but in this mosaic, similar to what occurs at Villa del Casale in Sicily, the depiction of the hunting of the boar has nothing to do with the myth.
Museo Nacional de Arte Romano: mosaic depicting Bacchus/Dionysus finding Ariadne from the workshop of Anniboni (early Vth century AD)
Another signed mosaic shows the dramatic decadence of this art at Merida. The subjects are placed in a haphazard matter, especially the panther. Bacchus is portrayed in the most unusual way as a sort of Roman senator and here and there round objects add to the confusion of the scene. The whole thing seems to be made by a child. You may wish to see the same event finely framed in a mosaic at Antioch.
Museo Nacional de Arte Romano - statues: (left) an emperor in military attire (from the theatre); (centre) Venus and Eros riding a dolphin (from near Casa del Mitreo, see a similar statue in Israel); (right) another emperor in military attire (from the theatre)
Archaeologists found at Merida a number of very fine sculptures. Chemical and physical analyses of their marble have shown that many of them were made in Italy, Greece or Turkey. The finely decorated muscle cuirasses of the emperors descend from those in the statues of Augustus of Prima Porta and Mars at Foro di Augusto in Rome and are similar to those of the statues of Emperors Trajan and Hadrian which were found at Perge in Turkey.
Museo Nacional de Arte Romano: (above-left) gravestone of Sentia Amarantis; (above-centre) gravestone of Lampas, aged 13; (above-right) relief depicting a snake at the foot of a laurel tree; (below) relief from the Mausoleum of Dintel de los Ríos depicting the Rivers (Guadi)Ana and Barraeca (Albarregas)
We know a lot about the ordinary life of the ancient Romans thanks to thousands of inscriptions concerning members of the middle and lower classes. The gravestone of Sentia Amarantis was commissioned by her husband Victor, the keeper of a public house. The relief is not entirely intelligible, but most likely it shows Sentia working in the family business. From this and other Roman funerary reliefs, e.g. at Porto and Trier, we understand that people were proud of their job, even though it was not a prestigious one. The gravestone of Lampas is a puzzling one. The inscription is written in Greek and this has led to believe she was a young Greek prostitute because of the way she was portrayed. Another opinion suggests that her husband was so fond of her and so sorrow for her death that he wanted her beauty to be remembered for the eternity. The relief of the laurel tree is not accompanied by an inscription, so its meaning is obscure. The junction between two rivers was a holy site for the Romans and they erected monuments there. That at Dintel de Los Rios commemorated Caius Iulius Successianus, a freedman who was member of the College of the Augustales of Merida, the highest social position a freedman could achieve (see the building where the Augustales of Herculaneum met).
Museo Nacional de Arte Romano: (left) gravestone of Titus Vettius Pomponianus and Caesia Felicissima which was found in 1943 at Dintel de Los Rios; (right) gravestone of Lutatia Lupata aged 16
Family bonds were strong in Roman society. A great number of couples wanted to be remembered in gravestone reliefs which portrayed them in the act of repeating their wedding ceremony. Titus and Caesia hold their hands representing union through marriage (see it better on a gravestone along Via Appia in Rome). In the other hand they have the tabulae nuptiales, the formal act of marriage.
Lutatia Severa commissioned the gravestone of Lutatia Lupata, her alumna (foster daughter), whom she wanted to be portrayed while playing the pandura, a string instrument; the relief shows the affection Severa had for Lupata.
National Archaeological Museum of Madrid (from Merida): (left) pedestal of a golden statue to Emperor Titus; (centre) gravestone of a "margaritarius" pearl seller; (right) gravestone of Quintus Licinius Paternus who came to Merida from Interamnium Flavium in northern Spain
Plan of this section (see its introductory pages):
|Andalusia||Almeria Antequera Baelo Claudia Carmona Cordoba Granada Italica Jerez de la Frontera Medina Azahara Ronda Seville Tarifa|
|Castile||Archaeological Park of Carranque Castillo de Coca Olmedo Segovia Toledo Villa La Olmeda|
|Catalonia||Barcelona Emporiae Girona Tarragona|